4 minute read
When my client told me his story, I knew we were in for a long and painful course of therapy. His childhood was packed with horror: physical, emotional and sexual abuse, parental conflict, betrayal and bullying. His adulthood was no better: drugs, alcohol, suicidal thoughts, tumultuous romantic relationships and violence. He hated a world that had always hated him.
And yet, after a few weeks, he began feeling better. Much better. I asked him what had changed.
“I told two of my friends that I was in therapy, and they both admitted that they’d been suffering from anxiety or depression, and that they’d both been in therapy too. And I suddenly realized that it’s not just me. Everyone has problems.”
My client continued to feel better and make positive changes in his life. After six months we both agreed he didn’t need to be in therapy anymore. Other clients, friends of his that he referred to me have told me that he’s a changed man.
While I’d like to take credit for having been a brilliant therapist, the truth is that this client fixed himself — and he did so by opening up to his friends. Perhaps it was the discovery that he wasn’t alone in his unhappiness that enabled him to change. Or maybe it was being able to connect in a meaningful way to others that opened the way toward a better life.
I’d also like to be able to say that opening up to friends is the silver bullet that solves all psychological problems. Of course, it isn’t. However, when my sad and anxious clients manage to do what this client did, they almost invariably begin to feel better — albeit not as dramatically as in his case. But it’s usually a very big step to a much happier life.
One of the things that often happens when we start to feel bad is that we do our best to keep up appearances. We put on a smile at parties, laugh and joke with others, and respond to “How are you?” with a cheerful “Fine!” Sometimes it’s because we don’t want others to pity us, or fear that they’ll talk about our problems behind our back. Or we’re afraid that if we tell them the truth, our friends will think we’re a wet blanket and back away from us. We may believe that others will think we’re broken, and who wants to be friends with someone who’s broken?
So we work hard to keep up appearances. And it is indeed hard work. It’s difficult enough to feel sad and anxious, but to have to pretend that all is well just adds insult to injury. Quite naturally, we start avoiding friends because it’s so much effort. Even worse, we start feeling quite distant from the friends we do see because they have no idea what’s going on inside us. They’re talking about their holiday plans, we’re smiling and nodding and trying to look interested, and inside we just want to crawl into bed and stay there for a month.
But social connections are essential for well being. We can’t do without other people. Distancing ourselves from our friends, or putting on a mask to conceal how we’re really feeling only makes us feel more alone, sad and anxious.
That’s the vicious cycle: When we feel bad, we have to pretend that we’re fine. Since that’s hard work, we go see our friends less often, and when we do see them, we feel distant. That causes emotional and physical distance from others. And emotional and physical distance from our friends makes us feel even worse, making it even harder to pretend that we’re fine.
How do we break that vicious cycle? We have to force ourselves to be with people — but in a way that doesn’t require us to keep up appearances. Here are some tips:
Take a small risk with someone. If you open up a bit and tell someone a part of what you’re going through, you’ll see quickly whether they respond empathically or not. Not everyone will respond the way you want — some people are too tied up in their own worries to be caring toward others — but sooner or later you’ll find people you can truly be open with. It’s generally wise to test the waters before diving in and telling the other person everything.
Replace groups with one-on-one socializing. When it’s just the two of you, it’s much easier to talk about personal things. Groups can be fun, but when you’re feeling down, the social jockeying for position and influence that are common in groups can just make you feel worse.
Consider finding new friends. If you’ve been feeling awful and your friends don’t know, it’s possible they’re the kind of people who are more comfortable with superficial relationships. If that’s the case, you might do better finding other people to be close to. Of course, it’s also possible that they actually do want to know you better and you’ve just done a great job of acting.
Prepare yourself for rejection. When someone makes it clear they don’t want to hear how you really feel, don’t take it personally. There are a myriad of reasons why this happens, and none of them have anything to do with your likability. But the more people you open up to, the bigger the group of supportive friends you will end up with.
Truly connecting to other people is a great antidote to depression. If you take the risk, you’ll find yourself with friends you can call on when you’re feeling down, and deeper relationships that will stop you from feeling down in the first place.